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Change your thinking

December 18, 2008
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

By Lauren LeFebvre

Let's start with the disclaimer right away. The following contains my views on disabilities. Not everyone thinks this way, but it wouldn't kill you to give it a try.

How common is it to feel sorry for people with disabilities? How many times have you thought "I'm glad that's not me?" Have you ever avoided the line with a person with a disability in it? Why? The unexpected? Unfamiliarity? Maybe your kids will blurt out something embarrassing? Maybe they might think you're staring at them?

Come on, be honest with yourself. Can you really put your finger on why this is?

When you break down the complexity of the feelings involved, it's really bizarre that people feel this way. Where is this person when you feel sorry for them or move to the next line? Right where you are, that's where. Unless you're in line behind a person who has the wrong paperwork completed at the Department of Motor Vehicles, what's to feel sorry for? Whoever this person is you see with a disability, and whatever the disability, they are doing what you are doing, maybe a little differently, but they're still doing it. You're grocery shopping, they are grocery shopping. You're at the bank, they're at the bank. You're at the movie theater and so are they.

Having children, myself, I can identify with wanting to avoid a potentially embarrassing situation. The situation can also be one of those famous "teachable moments" parents are always looking for. So let's say the worst case scenario, in your opinion, happens. Your little angel says something like, "Look at that lady with the little arms and no legs!" Mortification overtakes you and instinct tells you to reprimand your child while, of course, you make a hasty retreat. Don't think I have never taken the low road and run away. I have. Moreover, I've kept my radar finely tuned so I could avoid the moment eons before my child had any idea someone "different" was in the vicinity.

So now that the very loud exclamation is hanging like the smell of a rotten egg in the air, what do you do? Obviously, the lady knows she has little arms and no legs, so is apologizing the way to go? Maybe, if your child was singling this woman out as an object of ridicule then by all means. On the other hand, an honest comment by a child about what he or she is observing is a different story. Personally, I would apologize either way, because no one knows how others interpret things. Following the apology, and depending on how receptive the woman seemed, I would strike up a conversation. You can teach your child by example. Talk about anything, waiting in line, the weather - anything - it doesn't matter. What you are really doing is telling your child, through your actions, that this lady has little arms and no legs, and hates waiting in lines just like you do and is sick and tired of the rain, too. Plain and simple, cut and dried. Do people feel sorry for you because you are tired of long lines and bad weather?

None of this is rocket science, but might be hard to do for some. I have a great example of this and I'm embarrassed to say it came from the mouth of my own mother. As her oldest child, and one who has had a disability all my life, I was shocked to hear her recount this story. It seems she was in the process of getting ready to board a plane. People with physical disabilities were boarded first. My mother noticed a man with a severe physical disability boarding the plane with assistance from airport personnel. After my mother was seated, she noticed she was across the aisle from the man who was sharing the row with another individual he did not know. My mother's comment to me was, "It was great, he could talk about current events, books, movies and things like that." Whoa, back the truck up! I explained to my mother that I have a disability and I can talk about current events, books and movies. According to my mother, that was different.

So, what's the answer? I have no idea. If there were one simple, pat answer, no one would have preconceived ideas about people with disabilities. I guess the best thing to do is starting changing the way people think one person at a time. The line starts behind my mother.

Sorry Mom - it had to be said.



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